It was a long-long time ago. A disparate bunch. Bright, bespectacled, buoyant. Beautiful in their collective swell Of belief. As game changers We trundled up to the Mecca Of UPSC. Minor stars already In our minor galaxies.
Mussoorie was an appropriate cradle A misty place, Where dreams could hide And surprise you Around corners of wooded alleys. A cradle for toddler steps and infant flights. Between the sleepy drone Of lectures, and The buzz of laughter Some the euphoria of youth Some also, prescient wisdom For the years ahead.
Laughter about Everything. The ones who took things Too seriously Most of all themselves Were obviously KTPs.* Poor misguided souls Setting themselves up For a lifetime of grief, In a system that only Avows a dharma of merit, Not practices it.
The mornings were wretched; Praying for rain To avoid the trudge To physical fitness. (no, yoga had not ‘arrived’ in India then, So jogging and calisthenics) Or praying that those damn Handsome horses would break a leg Literally, and one could Be a British style Collector Saab Without doing a Trot, Canter, Gallop or worst of all, jump.
The food was patchy, Like the teachers. Either really delicious Or totally forgettable. The hostels were alright-No running hot water, No intercoms, No heating, No privacy, No tea coffee maker, No computers, No Wi-Fi, No washing machines, No entertainment centres, No telephones, Not even STD, Nothing but a genie called a ‘room bearer’, And our ingenuity To make it home. But it was alright.
And it was home. Those weird people around All the time, Were something called Batch mates. Mates they were indeed. But still A species you never thought of Or valued much, Till years later. The fellow travelers On a journey made of Equal parts Exhilaration and frustration.
Then there was also The uncertain thrill Of newness. To many guys The newness of articulate Intelligent women, Occupying the same hallowed space, Who apparently had as much brains (At the very least!) As the men. But who Still looked nice, smelled nice, Walked differently, Smiled as only women can, But held their own. I look back and smile too, At how completely confusing It might have been. It helps me understand And forgive, a lot.
There were love stories too. The surprising ones Were the most interesting, Naturally. What a harvest-Of easy gossip! That one and this one? Hard to imagine! Rightly there was a Club Called Contemporary Affairs. And intelligent types, I know, opted To sign up in advance!
Learning was not entirely lost In those rarefied halls. There were papers to write. Ideas to debate.
Strenuously. Workshops, seminars. Tutorials, case studies, field trips Participatory rural surveys, Village visits, classroom discussions Presentations, research groups, exams, and Quantitative techniques (QT’s) Though everyone complained That QT’s in real life didn’t exist in LBS.
Our faculty had a strange idea of fun. Not their fault. They were middle-aged. I know this now based Entirely on feedback from ‘youth’ Aka my offspring. We were young then Yet it seemed alright-No nightclubs, No Discotheques, No Adventure games, No multiplex nights, No monsters like a Mall, No dance parties, No mobiles, No latenight trips to a super sleepy town, And above all The weight of OLQ’s** To be balanced at all times. But it seemed all right. We did Weekend treks to nearby forgotten Spots nobody ever went to, Or sweet idiotic things Like ‘regional cultural evenings’ Or Quiz nights, eagerly fought, For no reason at all, Might sound horrendous, But we were young and happy, And everything was a little magical. Specially when the girls dressed up and danced.
A nation was, and is Our canvas of action. We knew in our gut That this was but the calm Before unforeseen storms, inconceivable then In our naïveté. Each, must have done their best Navigating the years By their own inner compass. Power and privilege Arrived unsought. It was the settlement Of right and wrong, The delineation Of white and black And the vast corridor Of grey in between That spelt turmoil. Some chose servitude And some simply Carried on with service.
Well. 25 years later. All the clichés are true. It was the time of our lives. Not that things went Seriously downhill from there. Just that, life got bigger, We grew up, perforce. The service of the state Demanded more and more, We went to bed Not with dreams but with Lists of things to do. We grew grimmer at work, Leaner in our hearts, yet Plumper in the mirror, Smugger to the outside eye. But there is reason enough to Mark a reunion, As much as to dread it-There are eyes that will See you as you once were. Not spouse, lover, colleague or child Those ubiquitous batch mates Will love or laugh Will sharpen their nasty wits At your expense-so be prepared-Once more-As years before!
* KTP: Keen Type Probationer
** OLQ’s: Officer Like Qualities.
Telephone Tales and Travails
There’s a species of LBS which is definitely nocturnal They’re diverse yet similar, and strangely fraternal Every night at 10:00 or where about The Telephone Exchange is their sole hangout!
In eager number the TE they throng Their faces ablaze, the queue is long; To avoid being clobbered I shouldn’t take any name But in their telephonic passions they’re exactly the same
They moan and groan as they wait Chant prayers and charms and invoke fate… Some fanatics call up with almost daily frequency Yet insist it’s only coz of absolute need or urgency!
But the phone-seekers’ Nirvana is hard to achieve Many come with hope, face despair, and leave; Thanks to the state of telecommunications here Meanings of words like desperation And frustration become clear!
People who haven’t visited the TE at night also miss a particularly hilarious night That is, the moment when ‘dreams come true’ And some phone-freak gets a call thru Eyes alight, voice a-quiver, emotions and expressed As someone tells Mama she’s so depressed! The rest listen in with a smirk or a grin, And sound just the same when talking to their kin!
One concept unheard of at the ‘Exchange is privacy So revelations of the heart have to be made publicly, Hence some sneaky romantics dash off to Kulri To purr ‘sweet nothings’ into distant ears more freely!
But less this petty poetry is taken amiss Let me add I grudge not the phone-fan’s bliss My words come from understanding, not mockery or distaste,
For (I confess!) I’m also one for whom life here minus phones is Utter Waste!
Sumita Misra Singh is Principal Secretary, Tourism, Haryana Government, and Chairperson, Chandigarh Literary Society